‘From ocean waves to mossy mountains, Milan runways to Manhattan alleys’ – We had the pleasure of connecting with the worldly and creative, Stefan Russell, who has worked for some of the most recognized brands in the world, including Benetton, Dolce & Gabbana, Rollerblade,Original Penguin, and Nike.
Stefan has had many impressive roles, including Creative Director at 4ocean, a purpose-driven business that cleans the world’s ocean and coastlines while working to stop the inflow of plastic by changing consumption habits. Unlike many other environmentally-focused companies, 4ocean isn’t a nonprofit, and they believe in creating sustainable business solutions to achieve their goals.
We asked Stefan about his fascinating background, and what a typical day is like as Creative Director. Read on to learn more about his life, and what an average day is like running and overseeing the creative production of all digital and image assets in his work.
IFD: To begin; can you tell us about where you grew up and your education path – Did you know what you wanted to do when you picked your major study?
Stefan: To start off, I’m a “military brat” and grew up in several places, including my birth city of Bangkok, Thailand. My father is a retired US Navy Captain, and my mother has a degree in teaching and biology. So, I can’t really claim a hometown, but after living in Northern California, Virginia, Florida, and Alabama, I came to a rolling stop in Northern Virginia, just outside DC.
In elementary and high school, I was heavily influenced by 80s album cover lettering and design, and I had an affinity for art and drawing that developed into a love of graphic arts, magazine layouts, and hand-lettering.
I knew I wanted to study something art-related in my senior year of high school, but my goal was to attend a liberal arts state school for a more rounded educational experience and to be in a new state. My plans of attending the University of Arizona fell through because of cost limitations, so at the last second (at the suggestion of my art teacher, Mr. Dave Evelyn) I applied to the College of Art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. At the time it was the highest-rated public university program in graphic design. The first year of the Art Foundation (AFO) was the most grueling time of my life, but I passed with honors and was accepted into the School of Communication Arts and Design in the Fall of 1988.
IFD: You worked abroad reasonably early on in your career and you speak a few languages – Was that a goal for you, and how did you go about getting jobs overseas?
Stefan: The summer of my Freshman year at college, I did an internship at an advertising agency in Zurich. My objective in my last year of college was to learn a second language so fluently that I would never forget it. I studied 4 years of French in high school, and am half-German. I kept my options open to what language that would be, and luckily, the first opportunity came through a high school friend who suggested I apply to work at an International School in Italy.
My first year of college in the Art Foundation program came in handy in the application process, and I was selected to be an Art Teacher at the International School of Trieste. But yikes! I had never taught anything to anyone before, so I enlisted my old art teachers from Lake Braddock Secondary in Fairfax, Va to help me out, as well as new friends who were already working at the school. This was one of those mental adventures!
I taught art to 1st – 6th graders for two years, and low and behold, I had learned Italian fluently. It helped me to choose to be roommates with only Italians!
I went back to the States for the summer, saved up some money, and went back to Italy to look for work and stay with friends I had met while working as a teacher. This became one of the most challenging years of my life as I struggled to live and find work in Rome. So many opportunities, but so few of them wanted to pay me a lira!
Finally, I caught a breakthrough through a contact I’d made in Zurich and interviewed at Benetton in Milan. I was now a senior graphic designer at United Colors of Benetton and moved to Treviso, Italy.
IFD: What advice would you give someone who would like to work internationally?
Stefan: Start with a dream and make it a goal. Be open to every opportunity to learn and follow your instincts. Be curious about the world, its people, and its languages, and you will fall into another country by default. And don’t get discouraged!! I went through many international scholarship applications!
Stefan Russell / Nike Swim
IFD: Tell us about your job as Lead Creative at Nike Swim, and can you give us some behind-the-scenes snapshot of what that job entailed?
Stefan: As the lead creative for the brand Nike Swim, I worked for Perry Ellis International (PEI) for about 11 years (for those of you that don’t know, a PEI is the license-holder for all production and marketing for Nike Swim).
I progressed from Senior Graphic Designer to Senior Creative Director during the time I was with Nike Swim and was responsible for all image and video content. This included creating the marketing campaigns for the performance swim and sport swim categories, and working closely with the international license division at Nike HQ in Portland, Oregon. Besides the conceptualization and production of every Nike Swim shoot around the country, and in Mexico, my greatest reward was in taking Nike Swim to a global licensing agreement in 2015.
IFD: You have worked across different markets, from teaching to apparel to purpose-driven ocean plastic clean-up – What are some of the typical skill sets, and some of the significant differences that you had to learn and adjust to fit each role?
Stefan: Typical skill sets between careers in fashion and plastic-awareness are:
– Being laser-focused on quality
– Self-drive and the ability to make up the rules if you have to
– Open-mindedness to ideas from others, both internally and with partners
– A super-strong desire for exploration
– Being hungry for the education of all kinds to stay abreast of trends, software, and creative strategy
To navigate the worlds of high-fashion and sports apparel, you have to be comfortable looking and play the part, even when you don’t know anything about that “part.” For example, in high-fashion womenswear, I had to study the market and dive into the fashion scene in Milan. That came with a lot of nerves for a boy with very little fashion sense himself!
Same with performance skiwear at Nordica – I had to imagine the speed of hurling down an icy mountain and what it would take to turn that feeling into an ad. Being a chameleon of sorts and drawing on my sense of adventure really helped! Believe me, I’d rather skydive than be able to feel confident at a Milan fashion show for Dolce&Gabbana!
IFD: Now that you have worked in different markets and positions, are you finding you have a favorite category or preference, and why?
Stefan: My favorite category would be a physical and mental adventure. I love being out on location, the more remote, the better! I also love being challenged mentally and sometimes arriving at new and uncharted territory through change and growth. Learning something new can sometimes be the most excellent adventure of all!
IFD: You also taught for a while – Did teaching play a role/impact/influence your current work? What skills from education help you in your creative positions?
Stefan: Teaching reminded me to be hands-on and tactile. Even designing on computers and with digital programs – There is value to the creative inspiration that happens from using your hands.
And patience was critical to my teaching. This too would later help me become a better creative professional.
I was also reminded of the immense joy
that comes from seeing through the eyes of children.
The idea that everything can be new is something that is all too often lost on adults.
IFD: What was your most impactful learning/position/experience along the way?
Stefan: The most impactful learning experience was going to non-Western places, and not only the language but the whole concept of world history was different. My first trip to Japan was phenomenal to me because it represented an education to a completely different way of visual thinking and representation.
Turkey was my first historically Muslim country, and this taught me to see the progression of western culture differently. Morocco was another place where assumptions about history, art, and culture were all upended.
IFD: Did you have any mentors along the way? How did they teach/guide/influence you?
Stefan: Most of my major professional influencers came from my instructors at VCU. They were leaders in their disciplines of design, art, and visual theory and taught me skills that I still use daily. Rob Carter and Ben-Day were two of my most memorable instructors.
At Benetton, Oliviero Toscani taught me the power of exact execution of photography, and Massimo Vignelli reminded me of the values of aesthetics and alignments as being innate to good design. And, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce taught me that creativity in any form can uplift and please the soul.
IFD: Can you give us your top 5 skills needed to become a successful creative director? And any advice on how to hone those skills?
Stefan: The most persuasive skills that make an excellent creative director are: Active listening, finding positivity even when it’s difficult, a strong desire for teamwork, the ability to express creative ideas clearly, and always having a reason for creative decision making.
The top-5 skills needed to be a successful creative director are:
– Having multi-disciplinary talents in design, copy, art, video, architecture, and music
– Marketing and organizational savvy
– A fervent desire to make and create newness
– A fiery personal drive to always put creativity above everything else
– Willingness and openness to change
Search out opportunities that challenge your comfort zone, and say “yes” to a great chance, even before you’ve given it too much thought. The reality of the adventure will catch up with the unknown.
IFD: What did you find most challenging in some of your past positions?
Stefan: Managing the expectations of a young team of designers. With so many projects going on, I had to be both a design mentor as well as someone who can get things done quickly and efficiently – all with maintaining the highest quality of work.
IFD: What were some of your primary responsibilities?
Stefan: I was in charge of the look and feel for design, photography, and most digital assets. My direction includes overseeing all web, social media, print, email, tradeshow, packaging, and video graphic content.
IFD: Any advice for students, or young professionals who want to get into a creative director-type role?
Stefan: Be patient and pay your dues. Work at as many different creative roles as you can. Don’t settle for the expectations that “jr.” leads to “sr.” leads to Art Director leads to Creative Director. Learn about art, make art! Learn about design by experiencing it! Learn about copy and photography by working on projects that develop those skills. Don’t expect things to be handed to you, and especially don’t stay in one place!
IFD: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Stefan: I would advise my younger self on two things:
– Learn a trade, like plumbing, bartending, or construction. – Travel more, and as often as you can.